Scientists and farmers dispute ag minister’s claim that Ghana doesn’t need GMOs

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

January 20, 2020

Scientists and farmers warn that Ghana’s agricultural sector will struggle if the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMO) is delayed for a century, as the agriculture minister suggested last week.

They were reacting to a statement by Agriculture Minister Dr. Akoto Owusu Afriyie, who said that Ghana does not currently need GMOs. The scientists insisted that farmers and consumers deserve to have a choice in deciding how crops are grown, with no option closed to them.

Farmers Evans Okomeng of the Graduate Farmers Network and John Awuku Dziwornu of the Ghana National Farmers and Fishermen Association issued a statement describing the minister’s position as “unfair to the millions of farmers across the country.”

And Prof. Walter Alhassan, a scientist and retired director general of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Ghana, said that Ghana can adopt GMO technology along with conventional breeding methods because they are not mutually exclusive.

Afriyie created a stir when he made a widely-reported comment disparaging GMOs at a government organized fair in Accra.

“I’m a scientist,” he said. “I believe in science. GMO is a method of science. But it’s like cracking a nut with a sledgehammer. Ghana does not need to go GMOs… Forget about GMOs. There is no GMO in what we are doing. It’s only when we have exhausted all the beautiful work done by our own scientists that we may have to fall on it, and that will be another 100 years.”

Anti-GMO activists immediately seized upon his remarks to declare an end to GMOs in Ghana. But while Afriyie is a powerful player in Ghana’s agricultural industry, the authority for GMO approval lies with Prof. Kwabena Frimpong Boateng, the minister for Environment, Science and Technology.

Though Boateng has not addressed the agricultural minister’s comments, he has repeatedly advocated for GMOs. Earlier last year, he submitted a document to parliament seeking an enhanced legal regime for GMO crop production in which he said “there is a great promise in the use of this technology (GMOs) to benefit not only the farmers but also Ghanaians society.” He also noted that “genetic modification can create an essential sustainable way to feed Ghana.”

Plant scientists, meanwhile, took exception to Afriyie’s claim that “there is a lot that our scientists have done using traditional breeding methods, not GMO methods. They have come up with short gestation varieties, disease resistance varieties, drought resistance varieties, you will be amazed the range that we have. And we don’t need GMOs. And I can assure you, this government is not here for GMOs.”

Dr. Mumuni Abdulai, the principal investigator in charge of the GMO cowpea project at the Savannah Agricultural Research Institute in Ghana, said there are some agricultural challenges that conventional breeding alone cannot solve. “He [Afriyie] is downplaying the usefulness of the technology because he thinks there are many technologies that can still give us good yield. But that is not the case,” Abdulai said, citing the example of the Maruca pest, which can destroy up to 80 percent of cowpea yield.

“Pests like Maruca cannot be easily killed with chemicals. So, if you use a lot of it, it is likely you will have residues of the chemicals in the produce. So, the option to go against this pest is to go for GMO technology. That is to go specifically for a gene that works against the pest,” Abdulai explained.  “In conventional breeding, we have more than 10,000 cowpea varieties. But for genes that can naturally control Maruca, we have found none. That’s what led to the introduction of GMO (Bt) variety.”

The farmers pointed to pest attacks, climate change challenge and poor yields as three reasons why Afriyie should not dismiss GMO crops out of hand.

“If weather patterns are terrible and rain is falling less and pests continue to devastate your farm to the extent that average yield of maize on Ghanaian farms is 1.7 metric tonnes per hectare whilst their colleagues in South Africa are producing averagely at up to 5 tonnes per hectare, it’s unfair to say using advanced science like GMOs on Ghanaian farms is ‘using sledgehammer to crack nuts,’” they said in their statement.

“Do we want to increase productivity or we don’t? Do we want to deal with the pest attacks or we don’t? Do we want to continue polluting the environment with chemicals and poison products with chemicals or we don’t? Those are the critical questions requiring answers,” the farmers added.

Abdulai and other scientists also disputed  Afriyie‘s contention that conventional varieties are bred by local scientists while GMOs are developed by outsiders. Abdulai said he and other Ghanaian scientists have been working on the GM cowpea varieties for more than a decade now.

Alhassan took further issue with Afriyie’s contention that the conventional varieties already developed by Ghana’s universities and science research institutions would suffice once they get into the hands of farmers.

“The reference to numerous crop varieties developed by the CSIR and universities sitting on the shelf and advocating their clearance before introducing GM is even more greatly flawed,” Alhassan said. “Breeding is a continuous process to produce new varieties that meet demand: GM or non-GM. These will not wait for clearance from the shelf before new ones are introduced.”

Alhassan added: “As scientists are exposed to new breeding tools and as the concept of demand-led breeding gains grounds, new tools will be used and new varieties will be churned out to meet the demand for superior new varieties. If the superior new varieties are GM, they will be released under the applicable laws.”

Abdulai also noted the reality of trade in discussions about whether Ghana should adopt GM crops.

“Ghana is not an island. Now, Nigeria is commercializing Bt cowpea. Whether we like it or not, if we don’t develop our own Bt varieties, we will be sitting here and we will be eating cowpeas from Nigeria. It could come through our porous borders. So why can’t we have our own [Bt cowpea] and put in the necessary measures to check it?” he quizzed.